When family pastor George "DB" Antrim III took his own life this May, he left behind a wife of 17 years and two sons, the youth group he had led for two years, and, indeed, the whole community of Waukee, Iowa. His was the first death Westwind Church had faced in its five years. "I had no idea how horrific that day would be," said pastor Brandon Barker, who read aloud Antrim's suicide note one Sunday morning as congregants wept openly.
Antrim's death was the latest in what is being called a "rash" of pastor suicides: the Illinois pastor who shot himself in front of his mother and son last fall; the Georgia pastor who took his life in between worship services; and Isaac Hunter, the Orlando pastor who killed himself last December amid a church resignation and divorce. In a note he wrote two years ago, Hunter epitomized one of the great lies of suicide: "I have become what I never wished to be, a burden on those I love the most."
Suicide—and its frequent companions, depression and despair—has received renewed attention among U.S. church leaders. At a conference this March that drew 9,000, Rick Warren called mental illness "the last taboo," and recently it hasn't seemed that taboo at all. High-profile pastors Perry Noble and John Mark Comer have written candidly about their wrestling matches with depression. About half of self-identified evangelicals now say more than prayer and Bible study are needed to defeat mental disturbances. Efforts like Duke's Clergy Health Initiative target the risks involved when a pastor's well-being depends on ministry "success." We've put programs and hotlines in place.
These are all good, but the church's response to suicide has mostly stayed on the functional level. And because suicide is as much a spiritual crisis as it is a psychological one, we'll need to infuse our practical resources with solid spiritual ones.
A 2013 book by Jennifer Michael Hecht—a Jewish atheist philosopher—may be an unlikely, fruitful place to start. In Stay, Hecht traces the dominant Western views on suicide. Through the centuries, the church condemned it as a violation of the sixth commandment, while Enlightenment thinkers embraced it as an expression of individual choice. Both traditions are alive today, as seen among some Christians who insist that suicide is an unpardonable sin, and among secular progressives who lead the assisted suicide/"right to die" movements.
Hecht puts forth a third way. It's a thoroughly nonreligious case against suicide, but one that resonates deeply with biblical teaching. "Rejecting suicide is a huge act within a community," she writes. "If suicide has a pernicious influence on others, then staying alive has the opposite influence: it helps keep people alive. By staying alive, we are contributing something precious to the world."
"Your staying alive means so much more than you really know," Hecht told NPR this winter. Suicide has a terrible copycat effect—it usually triggers more suicides, especially on college campuses, in military ranks, and among a loved one's family and friends. The "suicidal influence" is so powerful, Hecht notes, that "a suicide might also be considered a homicide." Given that suicide kills more people than cancer and HIV/AIDS, and more people from ages 15 to 44 than war, we are wise to listen to her communitarian argument.
And of all people, Christians should see the profound truth in it. We are never "individuals" but always and inextricably bound together in profound ways. Our connectedness is so central to the gospel that Paul uses a compelling metaphor—the body—to capture it (1 Cor. 12; Rom. 12; Eph. 4). In this body, all the parts are needed and work as a whole. If one part of the body cuts itself off forever, then surely the entire body will suffer. And just as the eye can't say to the hand, "I don't need you!" (1 Cor. 12:21), neither can it say, "You don't need me!"
Every person is spiritually stitched to innumerable other persons. Here we find not only the strongest argument against suicide, but also a powerful antidote to it. Along with hotlines and health clinic referrals, we the church also need to foster communities where the darkest of impulses can be named without fear of rejection. Satan would love nothing more than to keep suicidal Christians isolated. But God has given us the answer in each other. As we are knitted together as the church, the gates of hell—and of suicide—will not prevail against us.
Katelyn Beaty is CT's managing editor.
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